It set up as a weekend for Ronald Acuna to show that he deserves MVP consideration alongside Dodgers slugger Cody Bellinger. It ended with Acuna on the bench after Braves manager Brian Snitker pulled him from the game for not running the bases hard. All was well for the Braves after they rallied to beat the Dodgers on Sunday for a big series victory, but Snitker sent a pointed message to his young superstar.
In the third inning Acuna hit a high fly ball to right field then walked to first base as he watched it go. Purists hate it, but I like it when players admire their work. And it’s not even clear Acuna was styling so much as hoping the ball would keep carrying.
The problem was that Acuna’s work wasn’t done. The ball hit the brick at the top of SunTrust Park’s 16-foot high wall in right. It bounced back to Dodgers center fielder A.J. Pollock, who corralled the ball at about the same time as Acuna finally reached first base.
“I obviously wasn’t thinking,” Acuna said through a team interpreter.
The Braves trailed 3-0 at the time. The single that advanced Max Fried to third base with no outs should have been a double with no outs. Acuna's mistake was magnified when he got thrown out trying to steal second base on the next pitch, but didn't matter much for the outcome. Recent Braves call-up Rafael Ortega hit a grand slam in the sixth inning to lift them to a 5-3 victory.
Snitker waited until the next inning to pull Acuna from the game, which may have miffed the player. Snitker said he’d already decided to replace Acuna but didn’t want to send Adam Duvall in the game as a substitute without allowing him time to get loose.
“You’ve got to run,” Snitker said of Acuna’s miscue. “It’s not going to be acceptable here. As a teammate you are responsible for 24 other guys. That name on the front is a lot more important than the name on the back of that jersey. You can’t do that.”
He’s right. Baseball can be comically self-serious, so I like it when players show more personality. But professionalism is important. Acuna should have been running because that fly ball wasn’t certain to clear the wall. He’s so fast he could have made it to safely to second running at three-fourths speed.
Acuna is usually aggressive in the field and on the bases. This one mistake doesn’t deserve scorn. It did require a response from the manager. The consequences will end with the benching.
“We hit the pillow tonight, and everything is over,” Snitker said.
Snitker’s delayed action was weird, though. Acuna took his position in center field for the fourth inning. Duvall replaced him when the Braves went back out for the fifth.
Acuna said he was surprised he got benched after remaining in the game immediately following his base-running blunder.
“Truth be told, that’s never happened to me before,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about it as that being (possible). As I said, (the play) was one of those things that was unintentional.”
I don’t see Snitker’s decision as some misguided sacrifice at the altar of The Right Way. Snitker, 63, is a baseball lifer but he’s not an old-school scorn. He has said that he may not always like the demonstrative way that some young guys play now, but he accepts that the game belongs to players and things have changed.
Instead, I believe Snitker pulled Acuna because he's trying to uphold accountability. Maybe that rankles Acuna, but it's how Snitker maintains credibility with all his players. Snitker did the same thing last season when he pulled Ender Inciarte from a game for costing the Braves a run by not running out a popup.
Letting Acuna slide for his slip-up would undermine the manager’s principle of treating all players the same. It’s not as if Snitker showed up Acuna. Braves manager Bobby Cox famously did that to Andruw Jones in 1998 when he pulled him from the field in the middle of an inning for not going hard for a fly ball.
Snitker was voted NL Manager of the Year in 2018. Running the clubhouse is one of his strengths. He's adapted to a game that's become increasingly younger. No doubt Snitker's background helps with that. He spent 20 seasons as a manager in the minor leagues, so he knows how kids are these days.
Baseball has an exciting new wave of star players. Acuna, 21, may end up being the best of them. One reason the Braves are fun to watch is because Acuna clearly has so much fun playing the game. The same goes for his young infield mates, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson.
Acuna might bruise the tender egos of opponents when he flips a bat after hammering another homer. But he’s giving the people what they want. Baseball is supposed to be entertaining. Acuna puts on a good show by being so good at it and infusing it with joy.
But he’s still got to handle his business. Acuna didn’t do that Sunday when he watched the ball instead of running the bases. The consequences were tough but fair.
“It’s one of those things,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “It happens. He’ll learn from it.”